Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Grapefruit Jews

It wasn’t that long ago when the Jewish holidays seemed so straightforward. Go to synagogue. Invite a few people over. Eat.

But in our current reality, confronted at every corner as we are now by terror, everything has been affected in one way or another.

It was the morning after 19 people were murdered by a suicide bomber in a crowded Haifa restaurant. We were still reeling from the horrendous details: two families lost five members each.

That evening was Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. We needed a way to distance ourselves from the news and our emotions, in order to spiritually prepare for the holiday.

We needed some space.

Now, Jerusalem is a beautiful city, but it’s very crowded. There are no grand plazas or parks like in Europe. And no sweeping seafront as even Tel Aviv just down the road so proudly boasts.

There are, however, two man-made lakes. One is on the grounds of the Tisch Family Biblical Zoo; the other at the Wohl Rose Garden, sandwiched in-between the Knesset and the Supreme Court.

The latter is a particularly auspicious location with gorgeous views in both directions, plentiful paths for scootering, and shady trees for reading and resting. We figured with everyone else getting ready for the holiday, we should have the place to ourselves.

When we got to the lake, though, it was packed. Tens of religious men, women and children were going about the holiday ritual of tashlich.

Beginning on the first day of Rosh Hashana, the custom is to find a body of water – preferably one with a few fish in it – and to cast one’s sins into it.

Old crusts of bread become the symbolic embodiment of those sins as they are tossed into the water while prayers are read.

And so, on the day we chose to visit, the lake at the Rose Garden had been transformed from peaceful park into mobile synagogue.

Aviv had already settled on his own five-year-old form of tashlich. He planned to spend the morning throwing rocks into the water.

So there we were, black hatted families tossing in left-over holiday challah, and Aviv lobbing ever-larger rocks. Splash. There goes a crust with a couple of raisins still sticking out. Plop. There goes another rock.

Remarkably, everyone got along beautifully.

After awhile, a family of six sat down on the bench near where Jody and I had settled in. They placed a large duffle bag near the small shoreline. I couldn’t help wondering what was inside: a picnic lunch? A pile of prayer books?

When the family was done with their tashlich, the mother, who had her back to us as she discreetly nursed a baby, called over to her husband:

“Time to do kapparot.”

Another ritual for casting away sins. In this case, said sins are supposedly transferred to a live chicken which is swung over one’s head three times and then donated to the poor for food.

At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve never had the gumption to visit Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market before Yom Kippur where the gruesome act is famously performed.

As I eyed the duffle, a sudden realization came over me. As the father sauntered over to the bag and slowly unzipped it, I braced myself for the sound of squawking. I know it was rude, but I couldn’t help staring as I waited for the smallest sign of chicken feathers fluttering in the wind.

Instead, he pulled out a small white envelope and handed it to his wife who waved it over her head in three neat circles while reading from her prayer book.

I held back an urge to ask what was inside the envelope. Instead I wished them a “Shana Tova” – a Happy New Year – as they got up to leave.

The father repeated back the greeting, which pretty much replaces "Hello" and "Goodbye" as the preferred salutation this time of year.

Then he turned to me and in all seriousness said: “Grapefruit juice.”

“Excuse me?” I stammered.

This pronouncement had come out of nowhere. Did it have something to do with the chickens? Or was I having a Benjamin Braddock moment, receiving the religious equivalent of a hot “plastics” tip

“My Rabbi says to drink lots of grapefruit juice,” he clarified. “It will help you get through your Yom Kippur fast.

“Oh,” I replied. “Well…thanks. I guess.”

And then we left too. The five of us still needed to do some last minute shopping, then bathe and eat our last meal before the holiday began.

Over our late afternoon lunch, we couldn’t help returning to the events of the previous 24 hours. Jody said a prayer for the families in Haifa who had died and remarked how they had been eating what turned out to be their very last meal. They wouldn’t be fasting this Yom Kippur, she told the kids.

I thought about all of those have fallen in the last year. And with no small amount of dread, of those who will undoubtedly fall in the year, and years, to come.

And then, in a silent tribute to life, we drank our grapefruit juice.

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